Since Dahmer premiered on Netflix on Sept. 21, the show has broken the streaming platform’s record for most-watched first week for a new series, surpassing even Squid Game, per internal data released Tuesday. But the serial killer show hasn’t shot to no. 1 without a good deal of controversy. Netflix was pressured to remove the LGBTQ tag from the series after backlash from some in the queer community, and now family members of one of Dahmer’s 17 known victims—who were disproportionately gay men and gay men of color, murdered between 1978 and 1991—are speaking out against the show and questioning why it was even made.
Over the weekend, Rita Isbell, sister to Dahmer victim Errol Lindsey, wrote a personal essay for Insider about her reaction to the show. She recounted the moment she read her victim impact statement to Dahmer in 1992, at one point stepping off the witness stand and rushing at him (a scene recreated by Dahmer), and, after enduring the pain of losing her brother and weathering Dahmer’s very public trial, she wrote of the show, “I don’t need to watch it. I lived it.”
“When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself—when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” Isebll said of the Dahmer scene depicting the moment she read her statement in court. “If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. … That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.”
Further adding to the pain, Isbell said Netflix had never contacted her regarding the show. She called it “sad” that Netflix is “just making money off this tragedy. That’s greed,” and suggested that the show give “some of the money to the victims’ children.”
“The victims have children and grandchildren,” she wrote. “If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless.”
Eric Perry, Lindsey’s cousin, has also very publicly criticized Dahmer. “I know true crime media is huge rn, but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) are pissed about this show,” Perry wrote in a tweet last week, quote-tweeting a video juxtaposing Isbell’s real-life victim impact statement with the scene in Dahmer. “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” Perry’s tweet has since drawn well over 400,000 likes. “Recreating my cousin having an emotional breakdown in court in the face of the man who tortured and murdered her brother is WILD,” he added.
In a subsequent thread, Perry wrote: “To answer the main question, no, they don’t notify families when they do this. It’s all public record, so they don’t have to notify (or pay!) anyone. My family found out when everyone else did. So when they say they’re doing this ‘with respect to the victims’ or ‘honoring the dignity of the families’, no one contacts them.” He continued, “My cousins wake up every few months at this point with a bunch of calls and messages and they know there’s another Dahmer show. It’s cruel.”
To Perry’s point, Netflix has marketed Dahmer as a project to honor family members of Dahmer’s victims. But for some critics, this hasn’t exactly been the takeaway from the show. “Reducing most of the victims and their families to their pain is closer to exploiting that pain than honoring any memories,” Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter critic, wrote of Dahmer in a review.
Rashad Robinson, president of the nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change, was enlisted as a consulting producer on the show, and says Dahmer is highly critical of the police and systemic failures—fueled by homophobia and white supremacy—that allowed Dahmer to kill so many gay men and boys of color over the course of over a decade. “I wanted to make sure that we really enhanced the deep understanding of the systemic racism in the Milwaukee Police Department, that we really enhance all the ways in which policing failed throughout each and every stage, the incentive structures that allowed a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy to continually kill and harm people, particularly Black and brown people,” Robinson has said of the show.
This is certainly important to note. But truthfully, whenever we hurl serial killers back into the spotlight and give them the Hollywood treatment, we’re opening the door for them to be glamourized and romanticized by audiences, and consequently subjecting their victims’ families to further trauma and pain. As we speak, TikTok—a platform that’s been rehabilitating and thirsting for a lot of violent men of late—is awash with videos and comments expressing sympathy and even desire for Dahmer. The reaction is something akin to the lust and fandom that Zac Efron’s portrayal of serial killer Ted Bundy stoked. I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to have loved any of these men’s victims and read comments like, “Why do I feel sorry for Jeffrey Dahmer?” or “wish he was alive so I could write to him.” It’s gutting.
Lindsey’s family members want us to remember him beyond his grisly death at Dahmer’s hands. “When I think of my brother, I think of how he was such a goofball, and I think he’s going to appreciate the fact that I’m still standing for him until my last breath,” Isbell wrote. “He knows that I’m still here for him.”